Second’ Caps Thoughts: Final third woes, defensive instability sink Vancouver Whitecaps against Sounders

In this edition of Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column on the Vancouver Whitecaps, we take a look at their offensive woes against the Sounders, look at what’s plaguing the defence and talk some formations, as Vancouver prepares to keep its MLS is Back hopes alive against the Chicago Fire this upcoming Thursday. 

It was an improved performance, but despite that, they were undone by a masterclass of efficiency.

After hanging on for dear life during most of their opening match clash against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Vancouver Whitecaps took some initiative against the Seattle Sounders in their second game, as they actually managed to hold onto the ball and control possession against their rivals. 

Despite that, they got hit hard on the scoreboard, as they lost 3-0, a scoreline that was honestly pretty flattering all things considered. 

Due to their inability to unlock the Sounders in their final 3rd, combined with their shakiness at the back, they got completely undone by a counter-attacking performance that Jose Mourinho would’ve been proud of, as Seattle made Vancouver pay for their lack of sharpness at both ends. 

So even though their midfield looked better than it did last game, the Whitecaps will have to head back to the drawing board once again, as they now fight for their MLS is Back lives against the Chicago Fire on Thursday. 

Much like the opener, their problems are clear to see, so there’s some hope that they can be fixed, but with an absentee list that is growing by the day, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll have all the pieces required to fix their issues this tournament. 

Either way, we’ll take a dive into what we noticed, both good and bad, as Vancouver starts to look ahead to their pivotal Thursday matchup with the Fire. 

The defence continues to leak goals:

For the 2nd time this tournament, and the 3rd time in 4 games in 2020, the ‘Caps conceded 3 or more goals on Sunday, as their defensive woes continued to play a big factor in their struggles to find a victory.

Despite controlling possession by having 53% of the ball (that number hovered between 55 and 60 for most of the game), Vancouver just couldn’t stop giving up five-alarm chances, which is certainly a cause for concern. 

Just take a look at the Expected Goals (XG) map from Sunday, if you really want to get an idea of how bad things were defensively for them against the Sounders. 

Vancouver allowing 3.77 XG gives a clear idea of where they struggled defensively against Seattle, who were just allowed to waltz into the box early and often throughout the 90 minutes on Sunday, as their shot bubbles showed. 

What’s worse for the ‘Caps was that the Sounders got things going right from the get-go, as well, as a slow defensive start made it hard for them to get any momentum going. 

The ball was in their net within the first 5 minutes, and while the offside flag saved them that time, the Sounders opened the score for real less than 10 minutes later, making it hard for Vancouver to keep to their game plan. 

For Marc Dos Santos, it’s worrying, as his defence was supposed to be one of his stronger spots in the lineup, but for whatever reason, they’ve been bogged down to start 2020. 

“It was a very weird game for us,” Dos Santos said after the game on Sunday. “The first part of the game, I thought we came in well. Defensively, right now, we’re making major mistakes. We need to sort out our backline. Talking about guys that are missing is not important right now but I feel that we feel it. The runs of Jordan Morris created a lot of problems, that’s how they got the penalty and the second goal.”

And while he was certainly correct in praising Morris, who caused all sorts of problems for the Vancouver backline, it’s the individual errors on the goals that really stand out. 

On the first goal, Jake Nerwinski, David Milinkovic and Jake Nerwinski failed to close down Morris in space, which led to the handball call that gave Lodeiro a penalty. 

While the handball itself can be debated, what’s clear was that this argument could’ve easily been avoided had the marking been tighter in the Vancouver box, as Morris shouldn’t have been able to receive a pass and fire a shot in such tight quarters. 

With the second goal, it all started with a mistake in their buildup play, as a loose Nerwinski pass and Owusu first touch allowed the Sounders to pounce, and they played right through Khmiri, who got caught flat-footed on Lodeiro’s over top the ball to Morris, who then slid the ball past Crepeau, who was in no-mans land at the top of the six-yard box. 

And then on the third tally, it was some poor corner marking from Vancouver that undone them, as they didn’t pick up Handwalla Bwana at the near post on the flick, before failing to stay tight to Raul Ruidiaz, who snuck behind the two ‘Caps CBs to poke home easily at the back post. 

The first 2 goals are tough to stomach, as you would’ve hoped to see the ‘Caps react better in those 2 situations, but at least they came during the run of play. 

For the 3rd goal, though, conceding another set-piece goal has to hurt, especially considering that Vancouver had time to set up their marking scheme ahead of Lodeiro’s whipped ball to Bwana. 

That’s 3 set-piece goals that Vancouver’s given up in 2 games at MLS is Back, so clearly there’s something they’ve got to work on there, much to the frustration of Dos Santos. 

“They were well set up,” Dos Santos said of his team’s marking on the 3rd goal. “The player from Seattle gets in front of Inbeom. Then Inbeom has to create a 2v2 with Cristian. But then he leaves that position and goes to the edge of the six. There, Inbeom has to track back and he didn’t do it. That’s how they scored the goal. As soon as one of the players doesn’t do his role, the team suffers. For sure, we’re going to address that.”

No doubt, that’s where the absence of someone like Erik Godoy looms large, as Vancouver certainly missed his defensive presence in moments like that. 

It sounds like there’s a small chance he could return for the Chicago game, but don’t expect it, as the ‘Caps will probably err on the side of caution when it comes to handling his injury. 

Along with the absence of Janio Bikel, who could’ve added some more snarl in the midfield, there’s no doubt that the ‘Caps should be better defensively with both of them back, but at the same time, you’d have expected better from the players they do have available. 

Ranko Veselinovic has been good, but he’s new and was thrust into a leadership role right away, which has shown itself in little moments as he gets used to commanding the ‘Caps backline. Along with the woes of Jhesser Khmiri, who has looked less than stellar on 5 of the ‘Caps 7 goals they’ve conceded so far, you can see the direct impact the absence of Godoy has had. 

The re-insertion of Derek Cornelius could help, and Dos Santos seemed to recognize that, as he threw in the Canadian for Khmiri to finish off the game against the Sounders, but we’re yet to see if he and Veselinovic can offer up a remedy to their defensive woes. 

If anything, the struggles can also be pinpointed to how Vancouver has set itself up, with their deep defensive line also playing a big factor in their struggles. Yeah, Khmiri got burned in that one instance that Seattle caught Vancouver high on that 2nd goal, but at least those sorts of mistakes came when the ‘Caps tried to play aggressively, which is how Dos Santos has repeatedly said is how he wants his team to play.

So chalk things up to stability, system and individual errors. From what we’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of work to be done in all 3 areas, especially until Godoy returns, but you’d hope that the ‘Caps can at least improve in the last 2 areas, paving the defensive framework for when the Argentine does return to action.

“The biggest issue is we’ve never been able to find a stable backline yet,” Dos Santos said. “The backline that played against LA in our last game before Covid was totally different from the backline that we’ve been playing now. We just need a sequence and a stability with that. That’s the major thing that we need right now.”

Final third proves to be elusive for ‘Caps attack:

As we saw earlier with the XG map, for all the talk that was given to the defensive side of things, the ‘Caps offensive woes also certainly played a big role in their downfall on Sunday. 

For whatever reason, Vancouver looked uninventive, uninspired and passive with the ball in possession, at least when they came anywhere close to the Sounders’ final third. They mostly did a good job of getting the ball from the backline up to the midfield and the wingers, but when it got there, they struggled, as the stats indicated.

That’s why the ‘Caps only generated 0.77 XG, as well as only 2 shots on target, as Stefan Frei’s most difficult action of the game was probably trying to pull up his socks without taking his goalkeeper gloves off. 

When the 5 attacking players (Cristian Dajome, Yordy Reyna, David Milinkovic, Ryan Raposo and Theo Bair) that you used against the Sounders have a heat map like this, despite making 148 touches, and it gives you an idea of Vancouver’s struggles at getting into the final third. 

That’s not to say any of the aforementioned names were bad, as Bair and Raposo were actually really lively off the bench (Bair had one of the ‘Caps two shots), and Milinkovic, Dajome and Reyna had flashes as starters, but if anything, it’s more indicative of a more global problem for the Whitecaps. 

Without Lucas Cavallini, Tosaint Ricketts and Fredy Montero, the ‘Caps lacked that physical presence and intelligence of a natural #9 up top, which was clear to see on Sunday. 

In a game like the one against the ‘Quakes, it wasn’t an issue, as Milinkovic, Dajome and Reyna were really good at making things happen in transition, but against the Sounders, who sat back, the 3 of them offered too much of the same thing up front as a trio. 

Someone like Bair could change that, as his physical presence did make a difference in the time he was on against Seattle, so maybe that could be the solution if that problem arises again, which considering Chicago has averaged 38% possession through 2 games, is a very real possibility on Thursday. 

“Overall there were parts of the game that we did really well,” Dos Santos said of his offence. “We have possession in their third but we weren’t able to get in, we weren’t able to find a player that could make the difference.”

So who knows, maybe Bair could even be that guy, at least down in Orlando. While Lucas Cavallini and his lofty 1.77 XG from the first two games are certainly missed (the ‘Caps have had 1.59 XG as a team through 2 games in Orlando), Bair has an XG/96 of 0.23 so far, the best of any Vancouver player that’s in Orlando, in only 65 minutes of action. 

Paired with someone like Milinkovic, who has an impressive Expected Assists (XA)/96 of 0.36, showing his value as a playmaker, and we could maybe see them make some magic in the final 3rd. 

That could even free up Reyna to play in his preferred role underneath the striker, which in this case would be Bair. If Dos Santos is indeed aiming to play a 4-4-2 to avoid isolating Reyna (more on that, later), pairing him with Bair could give Vancouver some juice up top, which they’ve certainly lacked for so far. 

“We need to find a way with the weapons that we have to answer and to find solutions in the final third,” Dos Santos said of his attacking options. “There was a lot of possession for us around their box but not enough hard runs, not enough balls played in. We were there but nobody was able to make a difference around the box and that’s something we’re going to need.

‘Caps figuring out their formation plan:

Speaking of formations, the big surprise pre-match was to see the ‘Caps announce that they were lining up in a 4-4-2 against the Sounders, which was a slight shift from the 4-3-3 they played against the ‘Quakes, despite not making any personnel changes. 

After starting the year with a 4-4-2, it seemed that Vancouver would switch back to the 4-3-3 for good, but instead, they went back to the 4-4-2 on Sunday, much to the surprise of onlookers. 

When asked about the change after the match, Dos Santos said he felt that 4-4-2 maximizes someone like Reyna, while also making the ‘Caps more stout defensively. 

“The model that we want is based on a 4-4-2,” Dos Santos said. “We felt a 4-3-3 isolated a lot a player like Yordy. It was difficult at times to get out against San Jose. We felt it would be better in a 4-4-2 for us to be able to put better pressure on Seattle and have different types of runs and options.”

“That’s why we did that. I don’t think that was the problem with conceding goals. The one on a corner kick is really bad and disappointing because we went over it a lot. The second goal, the one of Jordan Morris that makes the diagonal run, our backline needs to be able to drop down much faster when that ball is played.”

And while he’s certainly bang-on when referencing Reyna, what was truly surprising to see someone like midfielder Russell Teibert deployed as a winger, along with winger Cristian Dajome deployed as a striker, two moves that seemed to slightly hamper the effectiveness of the 4-4-2. 

Had he deployed someone like Bair as a striker, giving them that presence that was lacking up front, while shifting Dajome out to his preferred spot on the wing, it seems like that could’ve helped Vancouver’s ability to put pressure on the Seattle backline. 

Given Dajome’s and Milinkovic’s ability to press from the wing, Bair’s energy and Reyna’s defensive work rate (when engaged), they could’ve pressed similarly to how they did against the ‘Quakes. Instead, they seemed a bit disjointed in their 4-4-2, as the out-of-position players just seemed unable to shake off the newness of their roles.

For who he put on the field, Dos Santos probably should’ve gone with the 4-3-3, and he recognized that, as his mid-game shift to that formation only saw them concede 1 more goal after doing so, which came off a set-piece, anyways. 

They can play a 4-4-2, especially when they’ve got their full roster, but considering who they have in Florida, the 4-3-3 is probably the way to go for now, but if they do stick with a 4-4-2, it would be interesting to see what Bair and Reyna could do up top, with Dajome, In Beom, Owusu and Milinkovic underneath them in a flat 4. 

If he wants to take stock of the roster he has at his disposal, which he said is a goal of his right now, this could be a good opportunity to assess some players who will be fighting for minutes when their roster is fully stocked, whenever that may be. 

“What I’m doing is maximizing what we have, giving a chance to players that are having their first time playing in MLS, and trying to get the best out of the players,” Dos Santos said of judging his players. “To judge the squad that we have, it would be funny because Bikel, Godoy, Andy Rose, Tos Ricketts, Lucas Cavallini, Georges is not here.”

“We have a roster of 30 players if you count Isaac (Boehmer) as a fourth goalkeeper, 10 of them are not here. So one-third of our roster is not here. My process of evaluating is I know what we’re going to be about when everybody is here. The only game that everybody was here, we won. That’s how I assess the roster.”

Thomas Hasal pressed into action

Thomas Hasal shouts instructions during his MLS debut on Sunday (Matthew Stith/MLS)

To round things off, it’s only fair if we extend our praise to Thomas Hasal, who had a strong debut on Sunday, even if it didn’t maybe come in the circumstances he was hoping. 

With Max Crepeau suffering a second-half hand injury, Hasal came in cold and had a solid game, making a few saves and keeping things tidy at the back for 40 minutes, during which he kept a clean sheet. 

Given that Crepeau is reported to be out for at least the Fire game, that’ll give an opportunity for Hasal to show more of what he can do on Thursday, as he’s all the ‘Caps got right now. 

From what we’ve seen, though, that is far from being a bad thing, as Vancouver seem to have another solid goalkeeping prospect on their hands here. 

“I think he was really good for his first game,” Ranko Veselinovic said after the game. “It isn’t easy to go in, [not] warming up, he didn’t have anything, but he came really good. He defends a few good balls and I think he was pretty good.”

It won’t be easy to stomach the loss of someone like Crepeau, who was the team’s MVP last year, but if Hasal can continue to do a job as he did, it can certainly soften the blow, especially if Crepeau is out long-term. 

For a young guy, Hasal already looked confident, vocal and ready to take a chance for his minutes, so at the very least, this could be the start of a healthy rivalry between the two Canadians, Crepeau and Hasal, along with the solid Bryan Meredith, when he returns, as well.

“He came into a difficult situation,” Teibert said of Hasal after the game. “He was vocal and we did hear from the back. That’s what you want you, want a guy a young guy who’s going come in, he’s going to take charge of the game, and be vocal in his position. Obviously you expect mistakes, we all make mistakes, but a guy who comes in with the right mentality who’s willing to learn, who wants to do what he can, and play his part for the team, that’s exactly what you want.”

“And again that goes without saying, all the young guys that have come in, they’ve played a role. They’ve done the best they can and that’s all you can ask for, guys that are willing to work hard work for the team, and give their best, that’s all you can ask.”

Looking Forward:

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now with the ‘Caps ahead of their clash with the Fire. They’ve got some stuff to work on, but not a lot of time, so Dos Santos will have a busy few days of film sessions and training to quickly get what he wants to fix across his players. 

While Crepeau likely won’t feature against Chicago, if someone like Erik Godoy or Janio Bikel could make a surprise return, that would be a morale booster, as Vancouver still has all to play for, but don’t hold your breath for that just yet.

They’ll need a 2-goal win, and some help from at least one more of the groups around them, but hey, it’s better than nothing, and should hopefully be enough motivation to see them come out inspired and confident despite the tough start and lack of bodies. 

Much like after the ‘Quakes game, there are things to work on, but some progress was also made in some key areas, so now this will be a chance to see if the ‘Caps can put all of that together and have a balanced performance, one that sees them able to impose themselves in the key moments of the match. 

If they can do that, even if they don’t advance, at least it’ll show growth, which with all the absences on the table, is the very least that one can hope for at this point. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Chicago Fire FC, Thursday, July 23rd, 6:00AM

Cover Photo: Matthew Stith/Eric Goncalves/MLS

Join the Conversation!